Asquith and Grey at the Reform Club, December 1916

Speeches delivered by H H Asquith and Viscount Grey of Fallodon at the Reform Club, London on Friday 8 December 1916, following Asquith’s resignation as Prime Minister.

The Change of Government

My lords and gentlemen, I invited you to meet here this morning. I believe it is now very nearly nine years since we last had a party meeting, and that was on the occasion of my succeeding my ever-lamented predecessor; Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, in the headship of the Government, and, subject to your ratification, in the leadership of the Liberal Party. I think it says something for our relations to one another that during the best part of nine years we have never had occasion for another party meeting.

There has been, I believe, during the whole of that time, a practically unbroken harmony between myself, as the leader, and you, my colleagues, and the rank and file of the party. We have been through very troublous times. We have been engaged in great political enterprises; sometimes we have succeeded, and sometimes we have not achieved, at any rate, complete success.

We have been animated by the same spirit, we have pursued the same purposes, we have been united one to the other, and all with a loyalty and a spirit of co-operation which I do not think has ever been exceeded in the political history of this country. Gentlemen, I thank you most heartily. I can find no words adequately to express my gratitude.

Why the meeting was held

Then why are we here today? We are here today because I felt it my duty to resign, not the leadership of our party – though I am quite prepared to do that if I am asked – but I have been compelled to resign the headship of the Government. I should have been very glad if it had been possible, in a great national crisis like this, when all our hearts and all our hopes, as I believe, are steadily concentrated on the maintenance of national union and the effective prosecution of the war, to have said nothing at all about the causes of circumstances which have led to my taking this step. I am not, as you know, very sensitive to criticism; perhaps I am unduly insensitive to it; nor am I the least afraid of the judgement which history will pass either upon what I have done or failed to do in connection with this war, and I should have kept unbroken silence if it had not been that (I am sure without authority – I am not making any imputation of that kind) misleading and inaccurate accounts have been circulated with regard to the part which I have taken in those recent events which, I might almost say, if allowed to remain unchecked, might seem to involve an unrebutted reflection upon my personal honour, and that was a thing which I could not stand.

A well-organised conspiracy

Now, gentlemen, it is impossible to isolate the events of the last week from what was going on before. There has been a well organised, carefully engineered conspiracy – not, I believe, let me say at once, countenanced in any quarter of the Liberal Party, but directed against members of the Cabinet, and directed, it is true, in part against some of my late Unionist colleagues, but in the main, I think, against my noble friend Lord Grey and myself. He and I are the two men who are mainly responsible for the part which this country took before the outbreak of war, and since then up to the present time. I hope he will say a few words presently, but I know that both he and I from the first treated these attacks with indifference so long as we felt we could carry out our work, remain at our posts, and do what we could for the prosecution of the task which has occupied us day and night now for two-and-a-half years in the interests of the country.

Those attacks were grounded upon some alleged slackness, want of energy, or sometimes even alleged want of heart, in the prosecution of the war. I am not aware of any foundation for those charges. We have during the last year – in fact, more than a year – had a War Committee of the Cabinet composed of very able men, which has been charged with the main responsibility for the conduct of the war. I believe the Committee to have been a very efficient instrument, and I think it has done invaluable work; but experience showed (and I think there is no difference of opinion whatever between me and any of my late colleagues on this point) that, excellent as was the work done by the Committee, its efficiency might be increased if it were possible to reduce its numbers and to multiply the frequency of its sittings.

Mr Lloyd George’s proposal

I have discussed this with one or another of my colleagues a good many times during the past few weeks. It was, I think, a week ago today, last Friday, that my friend Mr Lloyd George brought me a specific proposal – the matter had been greatly considered – that the War Committee should consist of three members, one of the three being the Chairman. The Prime Minister was not to be a member of the Committee. The Committee was to take full power, subject to the supreme control of the Prime Minister, to direct any questions connected with the war. I considered that proposal, and, having done so, I replied on the same day (I am not going to read the letter) that, having considered it – and I gave various reasons – in my opinion, whatever changes were made in the constitution or functions of the Committee, the Prime Minister must be its Chairman. I say at once, before going into what happened subsequently, that the more I reflect upon the matter the more I remain of that opinion. I shall be very surprised if any Prime Minister attempts to govern this country without sitting on the War Committee.

That suggestion of mine did not commend itself to Mr Lloyd George, as I gather – I did not see him – and on the Sunday, the first communication having taken place on the Friday, I came up from the country and was informed that a meeting of my Unionist colleagues had been held that morning under the presidency of Mr Bonar Law, that they regarded the situation as a very serious one, that there was no doubt in their opinion the publicity given to the intentions of Mr Lloyd George made reconstruction from within no longer possible. My Unionist colleagues, therefore, urged that I should at once tender my resignation, and intimated that, if I did not, they would feel themselves obliged to tender theirs. I asked them, through Mr Bonar Law, to pause before taking so grave a step until I had had some further communication with Mr Lloyd George, whom I saw later in the day.

Two points of difference

Well, gentlemen, I was most anxious, and I am not at all ashamed to confess it to you, though some people seem to think it is a sign of weakness, to avoid a break-up of the Government. I regard it as a national calamity, though I hope all will be for the best. I was naturally anxious, having for two-and-a-half years done everything in my power to preserve the substantial unity of the nation, that the Government should continue, if it were possible, in an honourable alliance. I say at once I feel sure that Mr Lloyd George shares my opinion. We had a conversation, in which we tried to see if it were possible to accommodate our views. We were at issue on two points: the first was the relation of the Prime Minister to the War Committee, and the second was the personnel of the War Committee – hardly a less important point. I do not want to go into the names, A, B, C, or D, but I was of opinion (and I speak purposely in most general terms) that there were some – whether in the singular or in the plural – some persons whom he wished to exclude who had better be included, and some persons whom he wished to include who had better be excluded. I leave it at that. There was a strong, sharp difference of opinion between us. I threw out various suggestions, or perhaps, I should say, he and I together threw out various suggestions, to see if we could not solve the first question, and the second we did not attempt to solve; and in the end they amounted to this, on which I am sure there is no difference of opinion. I will read them.

The arrangement proposed

This arrangement was suggested:-

The Prime Minister to have supreme and effective control of war policy. The agenda of the War Committee will be submitted to him; its Chairman will report to him daily; he can direct it to consider particular topics or proposals; and all its conclusions will be subject to his approval or veto. He can, of course, at his own discretion, attend meetings of the Committee.

It is not correct, in my understanding, to say that anything in the nature of an agreement was come to on those lines. On the contrary, the matter was left for further consideration, and I undertook to make a written communication to him the next day. I say that because I see it has been suggested that I drew back under outside pressure from an agreement on those terms. That is not the fact, and, as you know, it is not a thing that I am at all likely to do. That is what happened. I thought over the matter most carefully, and the next morning, when I took up my newspaper, I saw this proposal that I should be excluded. It was the view of the newspaper that the suggestion that the Prime Minister should be excluded from the Committee was perfectly well known, and it was being commented upon. Now, how was it being commented upon? I will just read. Might I say again that Mr Lloyd George assured me that he had no responsibility of any kind in connection with this production, and of course I entirely accept his assurance, but the fact remains that the thing was known.

An article in The Times

This is how it was commented upon:-

‘The gist of his proposal (Mr Lloyd George’s) is understood to be the establishment forthwith of a small War Council, fully charged with the supreme direction of the war. Of this Council Mr Asquith himself is not to be a member – the assumption being that the Prime Minister has sufficient cares of a more general character without devoting himself wholly, as the new Council must be devoted if it is to be effective, to the daily task of organising victory. Certain of Mr Asquith’s colleagues are also excluded on the ground of temperament from a body which can only succeed if it is harmonious and decisive. On the top of all this comes the official announcement that the Prime Minister has decided upon reconstruction. It means, we assume, that he consents in principle to Mr Lloyd George’s proposal. The conversion has been swift, but Mr Asquith has never been slow to note political tendencies when they become inevitable. The testimony of Mr Asquith’s closest supporters must have convinced him by this time that matters cannot possibly go on as at present. They must have convinced him, too, that his own qualities are fitted better to preserve the unity of the nation (though we have never doubted its unity) than to force the pace of a War Council.’

That is the construction. As I say, I have not the least idea who was responsible for a breach of confidence which undoubtedly must have occurred somewhere. I make no imputation and cast no reflection. When I read that, which was one of a number of similar comments, I saw at once the construction which must be put, not only by critics but by friends, upon a proposal of the kind, even though it were safeguarded in the manner which I have suggested.

Correspondence with Mr Lloyd George

I wrote at once, and this is the letter, and I only read it because of the charges which have been made against me which I cannot otherwise deal with: –

‘Such productions as the first leading article in the *i*Times*i* of today, showing the infinite possibilities of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of such an arrangement as we considered yesterday, make me at least doubtful as to its feasibility. Unless the impression is at once corrected that I am being relegated to the position of an irresponsible spectator of the war I cannot possibly go on.’

Then I added this:-

‘The suggested arrangement was to the following effect’ – I used the word was and then I put in the various items which I read to you a moment ago:-The Prime Minister to have supreme and effective control of war policy. The agenda of the War Committee will be submitted to him; the Chairman will report to him daily; he can direct it to consider particular topics or proposals; and all its conclusions will be subject to his approval or veto. He can, of course, at his own discretion, attend meetings of the Committee.

That, I said, was what was suggested. That letter is treated as being a written confirmation of the arrangement already verbally entered into – the letter in which I start by saying that the infinite possibilities of misunderstanding and misrepresentation in this article made me at least doubtful as to its feasibility, and that I could not possibly go on as an irresponsible spectator or the war, as it was proposed I should. To that Mr Lloyd George at once replied, saying that he had not seen the *i*Times*i* article. I will not read his letter, because it is private, it was written very confidentially, but he concluded by saying that he accepted the suggested arrangement, subject of course to personnel.

Consultation with colleagues

When I had received that letter I thought it right, the situation being so grave, to consider the whole matter very carefully, and to take into counsel in its consideration some of my oldest and most valued colleagues and friends. That I acted under their pressure or under the pressure of any of them in my final decision is absolutely untrue. It was taken on my own authority, and on my own authority alone; but I cannot conceive that I was doing anything wrong in taking them into counsel. In the end I wrote to Mr Lloyd George that, after full consideration of the matter, I had come to the conclusion that it was not possible for such a Committee to be made workable and effective without the Prime Minister as its chairman. With regard to that, he and I were obviously not of one mind, and I could not possibly assent to those proposals, and if the Committee were to be reconstituted, as I thought it should, upon a smaller basis, I must choose the men to sit upon it with the single regard to their special capacity for the conduct of the war. Gentlemen, that is what happened, and the more I reflect upon the matter the more I am convinced that my final conclusion was the right conclusion, having regard to the construction put, as I think not without plausibility, on the suggestion with regard to the Prime Minister, that, so long as he remained Prime Minister, he must have supreme authority as well as supreme responsibility. It is very disagreeable to me to have to go into these matters, because I am as anxious as any man in this room, or this country, that we should be united, as I hope, we are united, in our desire to prosecute the war by every possible means to a successful end.

Help for the new Government

I have been asked, and it is a perfectly fair question for you to put to me, why I did not agree to act in a subordinate capacity. My own inclination was strongly against any such course, and again I consulted my friends and colleagues, and they were unanimous in advising me not to do so. I need not tell you that they did not put it on any ground of amour proper at all, or wounded pride, or anything of the sort. No such considerations operated, or could operate. I thought myself, they pointed out, and I am certain it is true, that if I were to come into the new Government (which I wish from the bottom of my heart, without any kind of affectation or reserve, the most complete success) in whatever capacity you like, but not as the head of the Government, these attacks would continue. If anything went wrong it would be said, ‘Oh, there is the old paralysing touch there. You have not made a clean job of the matter. Why do you not remove the taint and the cancer which has been so fatal to the effective prosecution of the war in the past?’ And my unfortunate new colleagues would in a very short time have found themselves confronted with the necessity either of getting rid of me altogether or being themselves tarred with the same terrible brush. I really do not think, and my colleagues did not think, that I could as effectually serve the new Government, and, what is still more important, the real interests of the State, as a member of it as I could outside, and outside I am remaining, with the sole object – I do not know that I need assure you of this – of lending such help as I can with all my heart and with all such strength as remains to me, in order to assist them in the great task which lies before us.

Free hand for ex-Ministers

It is suggested that I put some kind of pressure – it is a false and infamous suggestion – upon my late colleagues who are sitting here not to join the Government. I have done nothing of the kind – absolutely nothing of the kind. I have said to them collectively, and I have said to them individually, “Exercise your own judgement; consider how you can best serve them. If you think you can serve them by going in, for God’s sake go in; if you can best serve them by remaining with me outside, stay outside. I do not quarrel with your judgement or attempt to exercise any pressure upon you one way or the other. Such a suggestion shows to what a terrible depth the standards of public decency have fallen. Whatever have been my faults and shortcomings, and no one is more conscious of them than I, at any rate I have been Prime Minister of this country for the best part of nine years, and have now for two-and-a-half years been engaged day by day under a strain and stress of labour and anxiety, and lately under the burden of heavy domestic sorrow, which no one who has not borne it can even conceive”.

I am speaking to friends here, and I say it is almost unbelievable that anyone should venture to suggest that I am trying, or ever have been trying, to exercise pressure to restrain my patriotic and public-spirited colleagues from doing their fair share in the work of the State and the conduct of the war. I cannot describe to you in adequate terms how strongly I feel that it is the duty of us all at this time to avoid anything in the nature of recrimination. If there have been misunderstandings, let us bury them. Whatever differences of opinion we may have either as to the past or as to the future, let us give each and all credit, as I do without any reservation, for the best motives and the most single-minded desire to serve the country and carry on the war, and let us, above all, each of us do whatever he can, whether by speech or by action, by hearty co-operation to facilitate the task which is before the country now. That is my hope, that is my desire, that is my intention, and I trust it is yours.

Viscount Grey’s speech

Viscount Grey (who was received with cheers) said: Mr Asquith and fellow-members of the Liberal Party, – I can add nothing to what Mr Asquith has said on the history of recent events, but I would like to say a word or two in support of his justification of the course which he, with the full consent of all his colleagues, had felt it right to take. The nearest precedent, I think, to a crisis of this kind in a Government was that which took place in 1903, when Mr Chamberlain resigned from Mr Balfour’s Government. In ordinary times the Prime Minister of the moment might have taken the same course as was then taken. But these are not ordinary times. We have to think of one thing; how is the war best to be carried on? How can you avoid a week, even a day if possible, if the conduct of the war shall be in the hands of an enfeebled Government? I felt throughout this crisis that the prospect of carrying on the war with a weakened Government was something to be avoided at all costs, and that, once this crisis had become acute, it was absolutely necessary that it should be settled, not by means of a patched-up compromise, but by the situation being completely cleared up.

What were the alternatives?

I think there was only one way in which that could have been done, the way the Prime Minister has taken and that his colleagues have taken, and that is the resignation of the whole of the Government. One of two results must have followed from that. One was that the Government might have been re-formed under Mr Asquith with all the improvements in it which experience my have suggested or discussions during the crisis which might have brought us to recommend or agree to. In that event it would have come before the country as the only possible Government and the only possible means of carrying on the war. It would have made a fresh start, and would have received the united support which for some time has been sadly lacking. The other alternative was that a homogeneous Government should be formed, in this case under Mr Lloyd George, composed entirely of persons who had the entire confidence of Mr Lloyd George and his most active and influential supporters. That is the result which has followed from the crisis.

Future of the Foreign Office

Well, now, I would just like, if I may, to say a word as to what our course ought to be. There is no doubt what our course ought to be. We must support the Government in every possible way we can. But I would like to say, because there are some things in the recent events which have naturally caused resentment and bitterness, a little about what I think we ought to feel. First of all, speaking about the Foreign Office in particular, let us remember that in the new Government there are some members who were bound to the Prime Minister by no party tie when they entered the Coalition, and who have been colleagues as loyal as anyone could wish to have. It has been my good fortune to co-operate closely with one of them at the Foreign Office. I only mention his name because I have been associated with him at the Foreign Office – Lord Robert Cecil. You could have no finer example of able, single-minded, and public-spirited devotion to duty than his, and one could not be his colleague without wishing to continue to support him as far as, from outside, one can do so, when he is carrying on, if he is to carry on, precisely the same work in which I have been closely associated with him. And if, as report says, Mr Balfour is to succeed me at the Foreign Office, then I feel that the whole of the work at the Foreign Office and our relations with Allies and neutrals will be in able and sympathetic hands. So much for that aspect of the case.

Resentment at personal attacks

Now, as to the rest. It would be idle to conceal – there is no reason to conceal – the resentment which some of us must feel at the personal attacks which have been made. Everyone knows that we must feel it, and if we are going, as we are today and in future days, not only to make profession, but to give earnest of the fact that we intend to support the present Government in carrying on the war, our assurances in that respect will receive not less but more credence if we speak perfectly freely about what our feelings have been. I have never for a moment thought that the personal attacks on myself have been inspired by Mr Lloyd George personally. My relations with him have always been so much as to make me think that impossible. But they have been made by those who are working for him confessedly and openly. They supported him in the Press; there was nothing secret about it; and I have no doubt that they persuaded themselves that was the best way of helping the country.

The dominating fact

Do not let us impute motives. I want to deal justly with these things. But some – I do not say all – there was a great deal of legitimate criticism – of those attacks have been carried so far in these last days that those who make them have seemed to forget that we are in face of a common foreign enemy. Do not let us forget that now, or in the days to come. This is the dominating fact for the whole of this country, that we are in face of a foreign and implacable enemy, and that Mr Lloyd George and his Government have the destiny of this country and its future in their hands. That is the dominating fact of the whole situation. It is true, of course, that attacks of that kind long continued have the power to impair in a Government that sense of comradeship and confidence which is essential to the maximum efficiency and co-operation in public work, and the best kind of co-operation in public work. That is what I had in mind when I said that one result of clearing the situation might be a homogeneous Government whose members all had complete confidence in each other.

Courage in the dark days

There are in the past, of course, other things to remember and to think of also. I can never forget the dark and awful days of the early months of this war. Whatever differences of opinion may arise, and whatever divisions may arise afterwards between those who were colleagues in the great anxieties of this war, they can never forget what they went through together. And Mr Lloyd George, at any rate, is one of those who went through those terrible times with us and we with him. His courage never flinched or failed, nor did that of anyone else. It has been the admiration of all of us to see the courage which one set of men after another has shown in the field of battle and in the trenches in this war. But there has been courage too, at home, and sometimes the anxieties to be borne have seemed harder to bear even than physical trials. In those early days of the war those anxieties fell first of all upon the Prime Minister. I think in the next degree upon Lord Kitchener, who was actually at the War Office; but a considerable amount fell upon Mr Lloyd George, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, in finance. The courage of the Cabinet never faltered. It would be invidious to pick and choose between them. But I remember from time to time as the burden seemed to fall, first on one, and then on another, being struck by the courage of my colleagues, especially of the Prime Minister, Lord Kitchener and Mr Lloyd George, in those early days. That is a memory which we ought to bear in mind, when we know that the country still needs all the sacrifice, all the effort, all the ability and courage that can be given in the conduct of affairs, not only to secure victory, but even to secure the safety of this country and the Allies. When the new Government has to face difficulties (and great difficulties there must be) we must remember the difficulties we have been through together – that is one of the things we can never forget, and to the best of our power we must give assistance in the conduct of the war.

Tribute to Mr Asquith

This I would just say in conclusion. There is one subject and one person of whom I cannot speak as freely as I would like, because he is present – Mr Asquith, who is our leader. We are still together. Since the beginning of the war he has had to carry a burden heavier than that of anyone else. We know how bravely and steadily he has borne it, shouldering all responsibility, however great, bearing private anxieties and grief, however distressing, undaunted, dismayed and unshaken. The country does know something, but it will never know so fully as those of us who are his colleagues, how invaluable his presence as Prime Minister has been in days of crisis when no one else, by common consent, could have filled his place. Without him, no one can say what might have happened to the future of this country if he had not been there in that place in those times. He himself said that the strain and anxiety has been almost greater than anyone can conceive. Each one of us has felt that; but each one of us has felt also that the strain and anxiety upon him must have been greater than upon any one of us. That will come to be recognised in time, and I have no doubt in history, and even in the present generation, full justice will be done to what he has done. We, as his colleagues, today give him our tribute, our personal tribute, of admiration, of sympathy, and of affection.

Following Grey’s speech, the Rt Hon Eugene Wason moved a vote expressing unabated confidence in Asquith as leader of the Liberal Party and pledging to support the Coalition Government in the prosecution of the war.

The resolution was carried unanimously, following a query from Pontefract MP Handel Booth, who wished to clarify the exact role Liberal MPs were to take in relation to the new Prime Minister Lloyd George and his Government and asked for a clarification of whether supporting the Coalition Government meant crossing the floor of the Commons.

Mr Asquith replied that he himself would sit on the opposition front bench, but would provide organised support for the Government in so far as they continued to oversee the prosecution of the war with vigour and determination.